𔃄By Prayer and Fasting’

William Tyndale’s translation of Mark 9:29 and its consequences

And he came to his disciples, and saw much people about them, and the scribes disputing with them. And straightway all the people when they beheld him, were amazed, and ran to him and saluted him. And he said unto the scribes: what dispute ye with them? And one of the company answered and said: ‘Master, I have brought my son unto thee, which has a dumb spirit. And whensoever he taken him, he teareth him, and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away. And I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out, and they could not.’
He answered him and said: ‘O generation without faith, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you? Bring him unto me.’ And they brought him unto him. And as soon as the spirit saw him, he tare him. And he fell down on the ground wallowing and foaming. And he asked his father: ‘how long is it ago, since this hath happened him?’ And he said, ‘of a child: and oft-times casteth him into the fire, and also into the water, to destroy him. But if thou canst do any thing, have mercy on us, and help us.’ And Jesus said unto him: ‘yea if thou couldest believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.’ And straight-way the father of the child cried with tears saying: ‘Lord, I believe, help mine unbelief.’
When Jesus saw, that the people came running together to him, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him: ‘Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee come out of him, and enter no more into him.’ And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out: And he was as one that had been dead, insomuch that many said, he is dead. But Jesus caught his hand, and lift him up: and he rose. And when he was come into the house, his disciples asked him secretly: ‘why could not we cast him out?’ And he said unto them: ‘this kind can by no other means come forth, but by prayer and fasting.’

Mark 9:14-29, a famous pericope, in William Tyndale’s 1534 translation.[1] In the Alternative Service Book, it is the Year 2 Gospel on Pentecost 9 (Trinity 8), quoting the version of the New English Bible, which tellingly omits part of the punchline (‘and by fasting’) and ends: ‘There is no means of casting out this sort but prayer’. The new Revised Common Lectionary has dropped this pericope altogether, the Book of Common Prayer has it as the second lesson for Morning Prayer on the 9th March, and, in the Alternative Table of Lessons, on the Thursday after the Third Sunday in Advent, presupposing the Authorized Version which is close to Tyndale (though not identical) and ends ‘by prayer and fasting’.

Following the oldest English versions, we can see that Mark, the expert storyteller, constructs his narrative towards a surprising and all the more powerful finale, culminating in a single sentence. And Tyndale realized the structural importance of this climax when he marked it, in the margin of his edition: ‘Prayer and fasting’. But could it be that Tyndale and the King James Bible got it wrong, and generations of exegetes and preachers with them? The Greek New Testament which Tyndale used, the second Erasmus edition of 1519, has those two Greek words, ‘και νηστεια’, (kai nêsteia), ‘and by fasting’. But if we open one of the two text-identical modern standard editions of the Greek text, the Greek New Testament of the United Bible Societies and Nestle-Aland, we find that these two words have been relegated to the apparatus at the bottom of the page. Bruce Metzger, in his commentary on the editorial decisions behind the UBS edition, explained the demotion: ‘και νηστεια’, is a gloss by later scribes, added to the original text because of the importance of fasting in the early Church.[2]

I suppose Tyndale would be amazed if he knew about this decision to delete the fasting, and above all, if he knew about the reason given for this deletion. Guesswork about the different degrees of fasting in New Testament times and in the Early Church has replaced textual scholarship and exegetical thinking. For while it is true that some Fathers emphasize the role of fasting, so do undisputed New Testament texts (Matthew 4:2; 6:16 - fasting following on prayer explained in the preceding passage; Mark 2:18-20; Luke 2:37 - fasting and prayer, in that order, as the spiritual attitude of a pious widow in the Temple; Acts 13:2-3 - fasting and praying prior to the sending out of Barnabas and Saul; 14:23 - prayer and fasting as source of strength and inspiration for Paul and Barnabas in Antiochia; 2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27; and others). And it defies the laws of textcritical logic if one wants to emphasize a late increase of fasting in post-New Testamt times by removing some of the many references from the early pages of the New Testament.[3]

One might feel reminded of a current political attempt to prove that there are more Serbs in Kosovo than Muslims by removing the existing Muslims through a process of ‘ethnic cleansing’. At this stage, the actual textual evidence of the earliest manuscripts should be examined, and we must ask why and how Tyndale could have been so certain that he was right, agreeing with other European scholars of his time, like Erasmus, Luther, and Melanchthon, whereas practically all modern New Testament scholars and - it seems - translators and exegetes accept the editorial decision of the team around Kurt Aland and Bruce Metzger.

The longer reading, with ‘fasting’, is documented by one of the oldest manuscripts of Mark’s gospel, the papyrus codex P45 of the late second century; it is further documented by the first corrector of the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, by several other uncial codices, among them the Alexandrinus and the Bezae Cantabrigiensis, by the manuscripts of the Majority Text, by families of minuscules like f1 and f13, by Old Latin, Syriac and Coptic translations. This is a surprisingly manifold and varied body of evidence. And yet, it was rejected by the editorial committees of the current standard editions with nothing to show for the abbreviated reading but the uncorrected Codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Vaticanus, two minuscules and a reference in a Church Father, Clement of Alexandria, supplemented by that strange guesswork about the increased importance of fasting in the early church. This circumstantial argument is all the more surprising as the one and only example for its supposed influence on the reading of Mark in the early church, provided by the critical apparatus of Nestle-Aland NT Graece, is a single passage in Clement of Alexandria, an intellectual and philosopher who was not particularly keen on fasting, anyway.

But how can and should we assess the importance of the manuscript tradition, not least at a time when we have numerous papyri, uncials and minusculus at our disposal which were unknown to Erasmus, Tyndale, and other scholars of the 16th century? In fact, Tyndale was independent and critical enough not to trust everything he found in the Greek New Testament of Erasmus. The great Desiderius himself knew that the range and value of his manuscript material was limited and that he had to make editorial decisions. Some of these decisions have passed the test of time, others have not. One basic principle must be unmistakably clear; both Erasmus and Tyndale understood it, most of us today seem to neglect it: There is no single papyus or group of manuscripts that is by definition superior to all others because of age or provenance or majority.[4] Even the famous - some would say infamous - P64 of Matthew’s gospel in the Old Library of Magdalen College Oxford and the equally disputed 7Q5 of Mark’s gospel at the John Rockefeller Museum Jerusalem, both of which probably predate the beginning of the first Jewish Revolt against the Romans, are no autographs and cannot be used to prove how the authors themselves penned or dictated their texts; even they must be judged by textcritical criteria - for a simple reason: in classical antiquity, every manuscript is a potential carrier of scribal errors, intentional or unintentional variants etc. There was no printing press and no photocopying procedure which could guarantee that a certain number of copies would be word-identical. No two (or more) substantial manuscripts of any literary text have survived which are one-hundred percent identical; and this is true of Greek and Roman literature as much as of the Qumran scrolls or the Christian papyri from Oxyrhynchus. Nothing has been more misleading in the recent history of textual criticism than the reliance on so-called ‘good’ manuscripts which supposedly can be used as a yardstick for textual decisions. To give just one example: the Codex Sinaiticus may be right in 100 cases, but wrong in the 101st, and since no-one can know in advance when or where case 101 occurred, the codex can by definition not be used as an absolute standard text of reference.[5]

Equally misleading, as an oft-quoted argument for reliability, is the preference for the papyri among the New Testament manuscripts. It is true, needless to say, that the oldest papyri are our oldest textual witnesses, and that three or four of them may even take us back into the first century. But it is equally true - at least among classical philologists and historians - that the material nature of a document, in our case the fact that they are papyri, does not guarantee the superiority of the text contained in them. A medieval group of parchment minuscules, such as the f1 used by Erasmus in Basel, may - potentially - have preserved a much older, much more reliable text. There are also some parchment manuscripts which are considerably older than many of the 112 known NT papyri - the 0189 with a fragment of Acts is one of them and may well be the oldest surviving manuscript of that NT book. A reader of the Greek New Testament who relies on the list of manuscripts provided at the end of Nestle-Aland NT Graece will probably not even learn of its existence: it is hidden among all the later uncials, ten pages after the preeminent list of papyri. Once more: there are no NT autographs, but an enormous variety of branches and twigs and leaves on that tree of the textual tradition. There is only one way of doing justice to them, and there is a word for it: eclecticism, the strict analysis of existing, individual manuscripts and variants in their own right.

This takes us back to Tyndale’s emphatic insistence on ‘και νηστεια’, in Mark 9:29. The narrative is clearly structured, and in the final part, the part which is decisive for our problem, we are told that the disciples are indeed capable of performing miracles, but that they failed to achieve this particular one, because they did not know that this special kind of evil spirit could only be exorcised by uncommon means. It is an unfamiliar procedure, and obviously - as yet - unknown to the disciples. In Tyndale’s translation we are told by Jesus what this unusual procedure is: prayer - and fasting. It is immediately apparent that the all-decisive argument of the New Testament critics and exegetes who have deleted ‘και νηστεια’, from Mark 9:29 makes no sense. The increasing role of fasting in the early church was responsible, we are told, for the addition of ‘fasting’ to the text. But what about the role of prayer? Where does prayer figure explicitly in our narrative? We do not read anywhere that Jesus prayed in any way, and in particular not in any way unknown to the disciples, before he expelled the demon. The only new insight, indeed the whole punchline of this pericope is the combination of prayer and fasting, both taken together to give that additional strength - and none of them alone would have been sufficient. As we can see, it is presupposed by the way Mark tells his story, that Jesus must have prepared himself by praying and fasting in anticipation of an unusual and uncommon occurrence. Tyndale understood this and emphasized its importance in the margin of his translation. The disciples, who knew how to pray, had failed to bring about this particular healing. Fasting, as an intensive, concentrated ingredient of preparation for uniquely powerful action, was elementary. And indeed, Jesus had to provide this additional source of strength himself, since one traditional aspect of a successful healing miracle, the professed faith of the person to be healed, could not be drawn upon in this case: the stricken boy was mute, struck dumb by an unusually powerful kind of evil spirit. The father’s poignant statement: ‘Lord, I believe, help mine unbelief’, is not the son’s, and is ambiguous in its own right. By its helplessness, it only further underlines the absolute reliance on Jesus.

Every conceivable avenue of analysis leads to the conclusion that ‘και νηστεια’, ‘and fasting’, was an integral part of the original text, and that Tyndale was correct not only in retaining it, but also in emphasizing its importance in the margin. Two modern editions of the Greek New Testament are on his side; they are the only two which offer an alternative to the quasi monopoly of the Greek edition according to Nestle-Aland and the United Bible Societies. The first of these two is the Nuevo Testamento Trilinguë, the trilingual Greek-Latin-Spanish edition by José M. Bover and José O’Callaghan, the other is the Novum Testamentum Grace et Latine, edited by Augustinus Merk.[6]

But why did some old manuscripts, in other words, a certain strand of the textual tradition, drop ‘και νηστεια’,? After all, there are the Codex Vaticanus, the uncorrected first hand of the Codex Sinaiticus, and Clement of Alexandria who either deleted it or who used and copied manuscripts without these two words. The most probable answer is also the most common explanation of other variants in ancient manuscripts: a scribal error, caused perhaps by the numerous, repetitive ‘και’s,in this and the following passage. We should not forget that the (accidental) omission of ‘και νηστεια’, is limited to a minute strand of the textual tradition, and that even the first corrector of the Codex Sinaiticus redressed the balance by restoring these two words to the text. A theological explanation could also be attempted: In Mark 2:18-20, approached by the pharisees and the scribes, Jesus explains that the disciples will not fast in his presence - as wedding guests in the presence of the bride, but that they will fast every day when the bridegroom will have been taken away from them. This statement is contrasted with the regular fasting of the disciples of John the Baptist, and of the pharisees, and it is obviously and critically aiming at a fasting that is public and visible - a kind of ostentatious behaviour which Jesus rebuked elsewhere (Lk 18:9.14; Mt 6:16-18). In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus describes and recommends individual, hidden fasting, visible only to God, and rewarded by Him (Mt 6:16-18). Our passage, Mk 9:29, is an applied consequence of his teaching. If, on the other hand, a new theology of fasting in the early church had caused an addition to the text of Mark, numerous manuscripts, and particularly the so called Majority Text, would probably have followed this new theology. Again, as we have seen, the opposite is the case, and we may even turn the tables and argue that the occasional deleting of the reference to fasting was perhaps not a mere scribal error, copied by others, but a conscious reaction, in some circles, against an exaggerated emphasis on fasting in some regions of the early church.

Tyndale was right; our modern translations, inspired by misleading editions of the Greek New Testament, are wrong. ‘Και νηστεια’, ... and fasting, must be restored to the Greek text and to our translations.

Carsten Peter Thiede


  1. Quoted from: The New Testament, translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534, in a modern spelling edition and with an introduction by David Daniell, New Haven/London, 1989, 74-75.

  2. In light of the increasing emphasis in the early church in the necessity of fasting, it is understandable that ‘kai nhsteia’ is a gloss that found its way into most witnesses. Among the witnesses that resisted such an accretion are important representatives of the Alexandrian and the Western types of test. (B.M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Stuttgart, 2nd ed. 1994, 85). Cf also, for alleged other NT passages with such an accretion, B.M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. 1st Transmission, Corruption and Restoration, New York/Oxford, 3rd., enl. ed. 1992, 203. For a defense of ‘fasting’ in the original text see, among others, G. Minette de Tillesse, Le secret messianique dans l’Evangile de Marc, Paris 1968, 98-100. For a more general contextualisation in the New Testament and in early church history, cf. O. Böcher, Dämonenfurcht und Dämonenabwehr, Stuttgart 1970 , 273-294.

  3. The above-mentioned passages are undisputed; others, where attempts have been made to show that ‘fasting’ is a late addition, are: Matthew 17:21; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5. The addition of ‘... ει μη ετ προσευχ και νηστεια’ after Mt 20:20 in some manuscripts may have been influenced by the Marcan model and does not contribute to a solution of the textual question in Mk 9:29. Equally weak and inconclusive as arguments for a late addition of ‘fasting’ to Mk 7:29 are the other two cases, i.e. the rare additions of ‘νηστευων και ...’ to the Cornelius account in Acts 10:30 and of ‘νηστεια και...’ in 1 Corinthians 7:5.

  4. Cf U. Victor, ‘Was ein Texthistoriker zur Entstehung der Evangelien sagen kann’, in: Biblica 79/4 (1998), 499-513.

  5. A related problem can be found in the textual history of the standard editions of the Hebrew Old Testament. Until quite recently, the one single yardstick was the Leningrad Codex (which should probably be renamed St Petersburg Codex). It is only under painful contorsions that the Qumran discoveries and the new edition of the Aleppo Codex - the most important of all Hebrew codices, as it preserves the Masoretic text of Ben Asher which was used and supported by Maimonides - have begun to influence and change the landscape of Hebrew editions.

  6. Bover y J. O’Callaghan (eds.), Nuevo Testamento Trilinguë, Madrid, 3rd ed. 1994, 235; A. Merk (ed.), Novum Testamentum Graece et Latine, Rome, 11th ed. 1992, 149 (in brackets, but in the main text).

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